The late restaurateur Siu Chung Wong helped create Birmingham’s Chinese Quarter. Now his son, James Wong, wants the Chinese to play a new role in the city’s future. Steve Dyson reports
On James Wong’s seventh birthday in 1981, when his mother laid her eyes on him for the first time in three years, she sobbed at his hollow cheeks and skinny body. Born in Birmingham, he’d lived with his grandparents in Hong Kong while his mother, Yuk Ying Wong, and father, Siu Chung Wong, worked long hours to establish themselves in the emergent Chinese restaurant industry.
But living in a crowded apartment block with older cousins meant James, and his younger brother Richard, often missed out on the best food, leaving them close to malnutrition.
“I remember the Hong Kong years vividly,” recalls James. “We lived in two high-rise apartments knocked into one, 10 or 11 people sharing three bunk beds. Me and my brother shared a bottom bunk with my grandmother. The bath was a tin tub.
“Our daily diet was steamed pork and vegetables. A bread roll was a snack. A tiny crab’s leg or Lucozade diluted with water were luxuries. My mother used to send us chocolate, but with older cousins I hardly got to eat any. I became quite thin and my mother cried when she saw me. She took me for chocolate cake to celebrate my birthday, but I’d never eaten one before and was sick because my body couldn’t take it.”
It was an austere beginning, but the Wongs soon whisked their sons back to the UK after hard graft and a little luck saw them become independent restaurateurs. “My parents arrived in the UK in the mid-to-late 1960s, my father working all hours as a chef, my mother front of house. I’d grown up in Selly Oak until I was four, but they didn’t have time to look after us, so we were sent to live with our grandparents.
“Basically, my father wanted to be an entrepreneur. He started in Nottingham, then had a part-share in a Birmingham restaurant, but that failed after a couple of years. He was a gambler, won around £10,000 on Nijinsky at the 1970 Epsom Derby, and eventually used the winnings and other savings to start Seven Up, a small restaurant for ten to 20 people.
“They both worked really hard, and by 1981 could afford to bring us home. In July 1981, my father opened Chung Ying [a simple mixture of his parents’ names] in an old warehouse near the Hippodrome Theatre in Birmingham – one of what’s now China Town’s first restaurants.”
James went through school as “a painfully shy” young man, only just scraping a Paper Science degree at what was then the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST). “I was a complete nerd,” laughs James, “but at UMIST I socialised, had a girlfriend and discovered beer and vodka, which brought me out of my shell – probably why I only got a Third Class honours!”
Early sales jobs didn’t go well, and in 1996 James was working 50-hour weeks at Frankie and Bennys in Manchester. Then came Pizza Hut, in Dudley’s Merry Hill Shopping Centre, where he thrived on keeping long queues happy with banter and free garlic bread – cheerfully serving twice as many tables as other waiters. “I realised I had a gift for serving people,” he chuckles.
In April 1997, his father asked him to become assistant manager at his second restaurant, Chung Ying Garden, in Thorp Street, Birmingham. Initially, James struggled: he couldn’t speak or write Cantonese properly, and had little idea about running a 400-seat restaurant. And as the boss’s son, he was picked on by experienced staff.
But he studied Cantonese in his spare time, mastering both the writing and nuances of pronunciation. And before long, he realised that Chung Ying Garden’s service was poor – with too much backchat from waiters.
He started to push service harder, leading from the front by getting to know customers, many from older Chinese generations. “I wrote myself Cantonese scripts,” says James, “about sports, politics, and something I’d done that week, and was talking to customers, not just boringly serving them. Before long, 90% were my customers and friends, and over the years I became known as a bit of a story-teller. Customers would say: ‘Let’s go to Chung Ying Gardens, as James will have something interesting to tell us.’”
James became general manager in 2007, introducing karaoke and disco evenings, dealing with all diners personally, rarely taking days off and regularly packing the venue. But business was hit hard from 2008 by a double-whammy of recession and a growing popularity of Chinese buffet-style restaurants. Annual turnovers quickly fell by nearly 30% from a height of £3.2m to £2.3m.
Then, on 24 January 2011, James’ father – a chain smoker and alcoholic – died from a heart attack, aged just 68. “I partly blame myself,” says James, a tremble in his voice. “You see, my father was often drunk and collapsing, and so when my mother called me at the restaurant I didn’t take it seriously.
“I told her I’d come as soon as I’d finished serving some customers. The ambulance crew gave him CPR but he was brain dead after 15 minutes from not having air.” James ponders: “Could I have saved him?” But really, he knows it was down to his damaging lifestyle.
As boss of the Chung Ying business in the depths of recession, James turned to drink himself for a while, becoming a back-office recluse, and burying himself in paperwork. This was unhealthy, but it led him to discover the business was losing huge sums of money, and he began what he carefully calls “plugging holes in finance and supply”. It took James two years to turn the business around, helped by younger brothers Richard, now 38, an accountant, and William, 31, who’s “good at talking and networking”.
But James “missed doing the food” and so last year opened a new restaurant on Colmore Row, in the heart of Birmingham. He says: “It was always my dream to be on Colmore Row, where all the accountants and solicitors work, a street almost paved with gold!”
Chung Ying Central opened in November 2013, and while the other two restaurants are traditional, “where the Chinese eat”, the new venue’s a lot smaller, with a simpler menu, offering attractive dim sum, cocktails, happy hours, two-for-one deals and express lunches for a busier, younger audience. “I want to do food really well here,” says James, “with good presentation and attentive service.”
That said, there was a sticky start. “I used to like eating a family dinner with my mother on Saturday evenings, and earlier this year it was the night Paul Fulford [restaurant reviewer for the Birmingham Mail] tried us out. He had a bad meal, with bad service, and his review shook us. I’ve stopped eating at my mother’s home on Saturday evenings since.”
Despite that early drawback, Chung Ying Central is now becoming popular, which is just as well, given James invested a “six-figure sum”. He explains: “People from Colmore Row don’t go eastside [to the Chinese Quarter] and have realised this is somewhere different and enjoyable to dine.” Business has also improved at the other Chung Ying restaurants.
James has taken control of his own life, too. “I was drinking a lot,” he admits, “but since turning 40 [last April] I’ve become more responsible. I told myself, if I’m lucky, I’ve got another 40 years of life. So I’m drinking less.” The wake-up call might have been James’ love life: after a string of short-term relationships, he’s now settled with partner Phin Sham, 27, from Derby, and they hope for a family in the next couple of years. As well as heading 70-odd staff at three restaurants, James is exploring “two or three new businesses” in the areas of “property investment, student services and Chinese investment”.
He says: “Compared to Manchester, Birmingham’s been sleepy getting involved with China. There’s an upturn, phenomenal property deals to make, and I want to get China to invest more in Birmingham. “Look at all the Chinese students coming to the UK. Who’s looking after them? No-one is. I want to explore how I can cater for students’ accommodation.
Chinese students keep to themselves too much, and I want to give them a mix of placements in areas like law and accounts on Colmore Row. “To them and Chinese investors I want to say: ‘Experience the real English way of life. Invest in Birmingham property, and jobs.’
The Chinese gamble, enjoy karaoke, get drunk, buy shoes and handbags, and posh cars, but they’re not integrating. I want to change that.
“I want to make Chinese people feel welcome here with proper packages – hotels, bus tours, dim sum meals, plans for different visitors.” James is also busy as a governor of the Birmingham Chinese School, regularly helps a charity for the elderly Chinese, is a board member of Birmingham’s Southside Business Improvement District, and is about to start leading the Chinese festival committee.
He adds: “My father started what’s now Birmingham’s China Town. I love the respect he had for that. My aim is to push the Chinese to do more in Birmingham, my beautiful, multi-cultural city.”